CROSSING THE RUBICON
AMC is giving HBO and Showtime a run for their money with Rubicon, the most recent in a series of truly remarkable shows. The network started out modestly enough with a British show, Hustle, followed by the original dramas, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Rubicon is just as gloomy and dystopic, just as cynical and hopeless as its predecessors. In other words Rubicon is in keeping with the downbeat end-times we live in. That said Rubicon is different from other cable shows. It lacks the brightly colored spectacle of Sixties fashion and décor and sexism and racism and homophobia and anti-Semitism that makes Mad Men so horrifyingly compelling. It also lacks the crazed frenetic energy that animates the ill-fated partners in crime in Breaking Bad. The first three series are all about rule breakers: Hustle and Breaking Bad are about criminals we learn to like, and Mad Men is about the last days of social and sexual immorality without consequences. Rubicon is all about keeping the peace, by waging war, a job done by a strange team of idealists and the bottom and cynics at the top.
Rubicon is slow and majestic in its careful pace, mimicking the underwater occupation of the hero, “Will Travers,” a low key, depressed intelligence operative working modestly on the downlow. Played by James Badge Dale, who was in The Pacific with a good role in an otherwise boring series, “Will” works for one of those black box agencies that operate off the books and fight to be free of congressional scrutiny. When his father-in-law and boss, “David Hadas” (Peter Gerety) is murdered, “Will” sets off on a quest to solve the mystery of his death. Scattered along the way are clues in scrawled in crosswords, hidden in motorcycle seats, and left behind with a four-leaf clover, and “Will” must follow and decrypt these enticing suggestions for many weeks to come.
On one hand this is a classic conspiracy film. Yes, there is a vast right wing conspiracy out there; possibly rich white men who are the unseen but felt power exercised behind the empty throne of the American government. No other group is so rich or so powerful—certainly not people of color and certainly not women—and no other group has such vested interests to protect. In the case of the minor players, these men are called lobbyists or financiers or corporate CEOs, and they are the ones who run the country according to their own interests. We all know that. Rubicon suggests that there is yet another layer of secret power and manipulation of world affairs by a subterranean group we only dimly sense. But on the other hand, the series is about what the British called, The Great Game, the cat and mouse contest called spying.
This is a terrain left over from a 1960s black and white Cold War thriller, like The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965). The agency in question is API, which claims to have access to all intelligence and can, therefore, find the truth, or something like it. The agency is located in an unmarked building located on a non-descript street in an unidentifiable part of New York City, where the sun never shines and it is always night. There is no James Bond, there is no Q, there is no M. There is no flash and dash at this agency where “intelligence” is at least something the agents attempt to demonstrate.
As another reviewer put it, the whole show has the old-fashioned look of Three Days of the Condor from the 1970s. There is a retrograde and nostalgic atmosphere to the sets and the actors. The agents are intellectual and tortured nerds who are paid to talk and think. It is shocking when some kind of technology, like a computer or a television set, is revealed. In this universe, people use actual reports on actual paper, stuffed in actual paper folders. Regardless of the fact that one of the current “enemies” is the entire Middle East, everyone seems to be white and European. Perhaps there is an Africa group with real African experts, but we haven’t seen those people yet. The ones in power at API are overwhelming old and white and male. The few women are wives, secretaries, and newcomers to API. Since the Fifties, time has barely moved. Men rule and America is still fencing with its enemies, all whom are playing The Great Game. Except for the terrorists.
On a recent episode, technology—albeit unseen—entered in to an episode. The team of analysts, Tanya (Lauren Hodges), who has a pill and alcohol problem, Grant (Christopher Evan Welch), who is sulking because he is not the team leader, and Miles (Dallas Roberts), who has lost his wife and children to divorce must decide on whether or not to recommend a drone strike. These otherwise ordinary individuals, people just like us, must decide whether or not to take out their terrorist target, a dangerous man, we are told. The target is yet another leader of some terrorist group, hiding among women and children in a civilian zone. Terrorists have a long history of forcing the Americans to kill many helpless and vulnerable people in order to kill a few “evildoers.” The somewhat distracted team is working blind, with little intelligence, and is leading the blind, a pilot, who controls the drone from thousands of miles away from the kill zone. In the end, the team comes to terms with its scruples and recommends that the terrorist leader be disposed of.
Although using drones is a less expensive way to fight the so-called War on Terror, such strikes cause collateral damage and innocent victims die. The terrorists have created a trap for Americans who are forced to struggle between national principles and what they think is wartime necessity. The “Rubicon” that separated military and civilian targets was crossed during the Spanish Civil War when the Luftwaffe bombed Guernica in 1936 or in World War II when the Germans bombed London in 1940. After that, it was an eye for an eye, ending with Hiroshima five years later. Still, the deaths of innocent victims of the War on Terror are, ironically, few enough for us to focus on, and photographs of the deaths stir the consciences of Americans. What the intelligence officers at API are doing is fighting a war. The mere analysis of data and the resulting recommendations have life and death consequences. Although fought at a clinical distance, this new kind of war has oddly personal blowback.
The War on Terror is not really a “war” and should not have been named as such. Terror does not respond well to military solutions. Terrorists are not enemy combatants but shadows who dart in and out of hiding, melting into the general population. “Terror” by its very definition depends upon unexpected and unpreventable attacks on innocent and random civilians. And yet, we delude ourselves that we can prevent “terror.” The teams at API are on the front lines of an undefined battlefield where the best targets are the leaders and instigators, single individuals. Traditional battles are a waste of time, money and lives and cannot touch the triggers of terrorism itself. Under these conditions, targeted assassinations, debated in Rubicon, surely make sense and it is certainly cheaper to employ someone like the assassin in The Day of the Jackal (1973) to “take out” certain individuals. Terrorism, by definition, does not lend itself well to invasion; it yields much better to infiltration by a network of spies. But we cannot infiltrate the ranks of the terrorists. As one character remarked, “Our intelligence is lousy.” The question is why?
The American government surely has access to a large and assimilated population of Islamic Americans. Here in Orange County, there are many Arabs. I just spent fifteen minutes with a lovely Muslim woman at my local bank, who helped me open a new CD. It is unclear to me the extent the government has cultivated these citizens to fight terrorism. But one of the answers to the question of why our intelligence on the ground is so bad could be our unremitting hostility to the Arab world, even to Muslim Americans who have been loyal citizens. The latest cable news firestorm or fake debate is swirling around the misnamed “Ground Zero Mosque.” The false controversy is but one of many aggressive stances towards Arab American citizens who have suddenly become the “outsider.” Ignorant and credulous people are whipped into an ill-advised frenzy to appease whatever anxieties the general public has about the “Other.”
To attack our homegrown Muslims—even verbally—seems counter-intuitive. If I were in charge, and I am not; I would be in every mosque and community center that serves Islam and I would be recruiting Arab intelligence officers. During the height of the Second World War, military recruiters went into the Japanese internment camps and signed up the best and the bravest soldiers ever, the fabled 442 Infantry Regiment. There was no one more loyal to their country, America, than these Japanese-American soldiers. These Japanese men were eager to prove their loyalty and they suffered far greater consequences due to their ethnicity than have Arab Americans—loss of property, businesses, possessions, and years in camps.
True, Muslim Americans have endured “only” verbal slurs, but why would any self-respecting Arab want to work for a nation that routinely vilifies you and your religion? Why would any Muslim in the Middle East have any confidence in American motives? Tragically, Americans are fighting and dying to give the people of Islam a better life, while at home, Americans are denying them the First Amendment. If I were ethnically Arab, I would be tempted to keep a low profile in such a poisonous atmosphere. So America fights in the dark, without intelligence, without our most valuable natural assets, many of whom we have alienated. As I write, the last American troops are leaving Iraq. Soon most of the American boots on the ground will be gone from Afghanistan, if only because we have run out of money. We will revert to the kind of war suggested by Vice-President Biden, a war of strategic strikes via drones and fought by small groups of commandos. Although we have thousands of Arab Americans who would be proud to help stamp out terrorist groups, they must be discouraged by the lack of support at home. One can only imagine what the troops in Afghanistan must think of how Americans are undermining their position in the war.
Rubicon, in Episode 4, was grounded in reality. “Will” and his boss go to Washington to protect their privileged agency, while “Will’s” team tried to decide how many women and children must die to kill one man. And all with “lousy intelligence.” One of the great things President George Bush did was to speak out against the persecution of American citizens who were Muslim. President Barack Obama has likewise taken a principled stand on behalf of religious freedom. Rubicon seems intent on following the obscure murder mystery tour, which will unravel another vast conspiracy. While we do love conspiracies, because they explain so much, Rubicon might do a better and more interesting job if it grounded itself in the real world moral and ethical dilemmas of contemporary spy craft.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger
Tags: 442 Regiment, Breaking Bad, Christopher Evan Welch, Dallas Roberts, Ground Zero Mosque, Hustle, James Badge Dale, Lauren Hodges, Mad Men, Peter Gerety, The Day of the Jackal, The Spy who Came in from the Cold, Three Days of the Condor